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Analysis: UK newspapers are talking more about climate change and flooding

  • 17 Feb 2014, 17:00
  • Mat Hope

Last week, we published a blog showing that only a small fraction - around seven per cent - of newspaper articles about flooding over the past two months had mentioned climate change.

Over the past week, as climate change has become a more prominent part of the story, that percentage has doubled - to about 15 per cent.

The past week has seen commentators respond to a Met Office report looking at the impacts of climate change, the energy secretary criticising his coalition colleagues for having their heads in the sand on climate change, and Ed Miliband calling for politicians to unite in the name of climate action - all against the backdrop of continued flooding.

More coverage

There was a notable increase in the number of flooding stories that mentioned climate change over the past seven days. When we did the analysis this time last week, we found 3,064 articles mentioning flooding over the previous two months, with 206 mentioning climate change. But last week alone, there were 897 articles about the floods, with 138 - or just over 15 per cent - mentioning climate change.


Flooding articles which mention climate change, based on data from Factiva.

Discussion of both flooding and climate change has grown significantly in the last week. A large proportion - about a fifth - of all the articles printed on flooding since the start of December were printed in the last seven days. Likewise, about 40 per cent of articles that mention flooding and climate change over the same period were printed last week.

That suggests that when the flooding story was at its peak, so has been newspapers' discussion of the role of climate change.

Extreme weather events seem to be a trigger for discussion of climate change.

We searched for articles that mentioned "climate change" at all over the last three months - as far back as our database will allow us track. The results show a spike in mid-November when Typhoon Haiyan hit, before tailing off slightly until the storms and floods started to become a big story towards through December.


Articles mentioning "climate change" over the last three months. Each grid line marks the number of articles published during that week.

(It's important to note that we can't measure how big the spike was for coverage of Typhoon Haiyan because the record only goes back three months, so we can't compare the specific numbers. It just looks like there could be a pattern).

More prominence

As well as increasing in volume, articles mentioning climate change have definitely become more prominent over the past week.

Stories linking flooding and climate change appeared on the front pages of the Guardian and its Sunday sister paper, the Observer:

They also appeared on the covers of two current affairs magazines, The Spectator and New Statesman, which took very different angles on the story:


Climate change also broke out of the environment pages, with articles from news reporters and political commentators - perhaps not surprising, given that there was plenty of commentary from prominent politicians.

On Tuesday, former environment secretary Caroline Spelman said the floods should serve as a "sharp reminder" of the impacts of climate change.

Her comments were followed by a speech by the current energy and climate change secretary, Ed Davey, on Thursday. Speaking at thinktank IPPR, Davey accused some Conservative and UKIP politicians of adopting a "wilfully ignorant, head in the sand, nimby-ist conservatism" in their attitudes towards climate change. He said the current extreme weather highlights the risks that come with government failing to address climate change.

Finally, Ed Miliband hit the papers this weekend for saying climate change had become a "national security" issue. He argued that the current floods showed climate change was no longer just an international issue which carried the threat of global conflict, but a domestic issue affecting millions of British people.

Speaking to the Observer, Miliband called for a return to the political consensus on climate change action that David Cameron had promised in his 2010 election campaign, when the Conservative party leader pledged to lead the "greenest government ever".

A Sunday Telegraph editorial criticised Miliband's comments for being politically self serving while residents struggled to keep the flood waters at bay. The public want practical solutions that can be implemented immediately to stop the flood waters, not Miliband's expensive, long term, decarbonisation policies, it said.

Our analysis suggests that while the link between flooding and climate change was more prominently discussed over the past seven days, it was often in response to political events rather than as isolated scientific coverage - much the same as in previous weeks.

Evolving narrative

The media narrative on flooding and climate change has evolved over the past week. Not only was climate change discussed more often, it also achieved greater prominence in the debate.

The greater focus on climate change was still largely driven by politics, however. While climate science has become a more significant part of the story, it is still secondary to debates over the political value of adopting policies to address climate change.

Whether newspapers continue to discuss climate change once politicians' attention is diverted elsewhere remains to be seen.

Methodological note

We originally searched the news database Factiva for the terms "flood" and "flooding" in newspaper articles between 1st December 2013 and 10th February 2014. We also conducted a boolean search for the terms "floods AND climate change" for the same period. We have now added a search for the 11th to 17th of February to this analysis.

The newspapers included in the search were The Times, Sunday Times, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Independent on Sunday, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Sun, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Daily Express, and the Sunday Express.

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